South Africa: Resistance Rises To World Bank’s Climate-Killing Mega-Projects – Analysis


The World Bank and International Monetary Fund Annual Meetings have witnessed protests in Washington and many other sites. Nearly 100 protesters from community, environment and youth groups joined Extinction Rebellion and the campaign outside the World Bank’s Johannesburg office on Friday, October 14, the second such event in the last eight months. The main call was for repudiation of a massive loan – the Bank’s largest-ever project credit – made a dozen years earlier but still causing enormous financial and climate damage: the Medupi coal-fired power plant.

Throughout its 71-year history in South Africa, the World Bank financed episodes of high-carbon, anti-social mega-project maldevelopment.[1] The financing included not only apartheid-era loans that exacerbated parastatal energy supplier Eskom’s official racist policies from 1951-67 and neoliberal policy advice during the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994.[2]

In addition, the Bank lent more than $3 billion in 2010 for what was the world’s largest coal-fired power plant under construction, a project rife with corruption – especially bribery of the ruling party by Tokyo-based Hitachi – already well known at the time, and successfully prosecuted under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States in 2015.

One demand is that the Eskom debt related to Hitachi’s central role in Medupi and another coal-fired power plant, Kusile, be repudiated, in part to prevent a 32% increase in Eskom’s electricity price next year. The utility has been crippled by dysfunctional coal-fired power plants that represent 85% of its power generation, resulting in early-October ‘Stage 6 load-shedding’ cutting electricity to most households and businesses for up to six hours a day.

And in order to pay for Medupi and two other plants, Eskom has raised the real price of electricity by more than 620% since 2007.[3] Eskom is also in the process of privatizing, and as a result, its leadership aims to end cross-subsidization that assists low-income users.

To repudiate Eskom’s Odious Debt would dramatically reduce repayment pressure on the utility’s $22 billion debt. But the activists’ demand is directed to a government that would rather borrow new money to continue fossil-based energy supply to its allied multinational corporations. Hence in 2019 the state’s transport parastatal Transnet promoted a World Bank Liquefied Natural Gas plant.

To implement the state’s ‘decarbonization’-plus-gasification strategy, Eskom lobbied for a $8.5 billion ‘Just Energy Transition Partnership’ commitment – for low-interest loans from the U.S., UK and European governments – at the Glasgow United Nations COP26 climate summit in 2021. The Climate Justice Charter Movement has, as a result, called for a boycott, since the funds will just be used to repay Odious Debt and 44% would be directed to methane gas facilities to supply 4000 megaWatts (around 15% of current operating capacity).[4]

The Bank’s next fossil investment – the proposed LNG plant at the northern port city of Richards Bay, to which it has already donated $2 million – would logically draw in the northern Mozambican gas considered to be ‘Blood Methane’ due to a resource-related civil war in the Cabo Delgado region that has killed nearly 5000 residents and displaced nearly a million people.[5] South African troops are there, defending TotalEnergies, ExxonMobil, ENI and China National Petroleum Corporation investments in gas, notwithstanding the obvious climate contradictions since methane leaks result in a greenhouse gas emissions 85 times more potent than CO2.[6]

And there are many more reasons to audit and rethink repayment of Bank loans, given its desultory history defending white, wealthy people in what is now the world’s most unequal country. It may be that private litigation will be required against further taxpayer and energy consumer servicing of World Bank and other lenders’ Odious Debt, a process being investigated by leading lawyers.

Lending to apartheid regime and advising on neoliberal-transitional policies

World Bank loans to the apartheid regime date to 1951, and over the subsequent 17 years, four loans worth $94 million were granted to Eskom, half of them coming after the infamous Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 during which 69 black protesters were shot in the back. These loans represented the vast majority of Eskom foreign borrowings, along with much smaller credits from U.S. Export-Import Bank, the Commonwealth Development Corporation and Swiss and German private banks.

At the time, Eskom provided services nearly exclusively to white-owned businesses and white households: black Africans received virtually no electricity. The Bank never apologized or paid reparations for empowering apartheid, but instead continued lending to both Eskom and Transnet. The latter was mainly for rail expansion to sites of migrant worker recruitment, so cheap black labor was available to the mining, agriculture and manufacturing industries.

In 1967, South Africa reached ‘middle-income’ status and was no longer eligible for Bank laons. But economic sanction demands from ANC leader Albert Luthuli had begun in 1958, and the Bank paid them no heed.[7]

The International Monetary Fund also regularly lent to the apartheid regime during financial crises that were in part caused by pro-democracy activism, including in the early 1960s, 1976-77 (for $550 million) after the Soweto uprising, 1982 (for $902 million) during the gold price collapse, and 1985 ($70 million) even during a state of emergency, and a large loan the IMF made to Zambia in 1982 also carried conditionality that included opening up trade routes with apartheid South Africa.[8]

After anti-apartheid financial sanctions hit Pretoria hard in mid-1985, breaking the alliance of white capital and the state and signaling the end of formal racist rule, corporate profitability declined rapidly.

For Pretoria, another route to attract urgently-needed hard-currency inflows to fund apartheid rule was the destructive, corruption-riddled Katse Dam in neighboring Lesotho. The highest dam in Africa has allowed cross-catchment transfers to the Johannesburg area. During the late 1980s, large loans coordinated by the World Bank (including its own of $110 million in 1991) provided an indirect financial boost to apartheid via a London account controlled by Pretoria, seen by the Bank as more credit-worthy than Lesotho.

The dam also caused long-lasting problems for thousands of Lesotho displacees removed from their traditional land, and for the low-income water consumers who, in Johannesburg townships, were forced to disproportionately shoulder the repayment burden from the late 1990s.[9] The Bank also allowed massive corruption to creep into the project by multinational corporate dam builders, which it belatedly responded to with one ‘debarring’ banning order against a Canadian firm, pushing it into bankruptcy.[10]

South Africa finally democratized during the mid-1990s, and in the process, the World Bank played a crucial role in many areas of public policy. The IMF, too, had a central role in advising on the implementation of new regressive taxes and other neoliberal policies adopted by Treasury and the Reserve Bank as early as 1989, when South Africa suffered its longest-ever depression.

By late 1993, the IMF’s $850 million loan carried conditionalities agreed to by the outgoing apartheid managers and incoming economic-policy technocrats of the ANC.[11] As a result, even worse levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment followed directly from IMF conditions and World Bank so-called ‘Knowledge Bank’ advice.

For example, World Bank water pricing suggestions were ‘instrumental,’ its staff bragged, with disconnections of poor people catalyzing KwaZulu-Natal’s deadly 2000-01 cholera epidemic.[12] The country’s president, Nelson Mandela, faced enormous pressure from business to adopt numerous neoliberal World Bank strategies in spite of rising social movement resistance.[13]

Early Bank investments in South African coal

The World Bank’s private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), was a small-scale but increasingly regularly investor in South Africa, beginning with a privatized healthcare chain, a franchise of U.S. pizza corporation Domino’s and other alleged ‘poverty-reduction’ stakes in the South African economy, one whose inequality soared during the 1990s to overtake Brazil’s as the world’s worst.

IFC equity stakes included a 2002 venture capital stake of $5 million in the New African Mining Fund whose largest investment was in a KwaZulu-Natal coal mine – Tendele – that became notorious for its predatory approach to both villages and the nearby Hluhluwe-iMfolozi nature reserve, Africa’s oldest. The Tendele mine enabled the mining fund to realize an annual 39% profit rate, at the time the IFC enjoyed its 6% stake in the fund.[14]

After the World Bank cashed out, further expansion of the mine into Somkhele villages caused not only increased CO2 emissions, it also created local pollution and carried out destructive blasting that wrecked many nearby houses, as well as using scarce water (during the mid-2010s drought) for washing the coal. In 2020, Tendele was also attempted to buy off intense local opposition, by offering local anti-coal leader Fikile Ntshangase $20,000 to buy her homestead. She refused and continued organizing against the mine’s expansion, and a few weeks later was assassinated in what was the world’s highest-profile environmentalist murder of the year.

This murder led the main lawyer supporting her cause to call for reparations payments in the form of returned profits from the mine, of which in excess of $10 million could be argued as due from the World Bank.[15] The IFC’s original 2002 investment in the fund that financed Tendele was presented as contributing to South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment policy and sustainable development by supporting ‘junior’ mining operators. But promises of community prosperity, black advancement and environmental responsibility made by the IFC were all negated at Somkhele, and nearly all the IFC’s investment beneficiaries are white males.[16]

IFC financing of unjust mining profits and predatory consumer finance

The same pattern was evident in the World Bank’s two highest-profile investments through the IFC: at Lonmin’s largest platinum mine and in the ‘financial inclusion’ lender known as Cash Paymaster Services.

In the case of Lonmin, the IFC’s 2007 $50 million equity share – and promised $100 million loan meant to include the construction of 5000 houses for workers, though only three were built – were meant to promote Community Social Investment (CSI) at a particularly controversial mine producing by far the largest share of the firm’s platinum: Marikana.[17] By 2010 the IFC had made this mine its poster child for CSI, yet the hatred that mineworkers and their community supporters felt towards Lonmin built up by August 2012, resulting in a wildcat strike in which nearly all the company’s rock-drillers in Marikana participated.

That in turn led to a massacre of workers on 16 August 2012, as the mining house claimed that it had insufficient funds to meet their wage and benefit demands (at the time, for $1000/month). It was later revealed that Lonmin engaged in tax-dodging illicit financial flows to Bermuda sufficient large as to have met the workers’ demands.[18]

In 2015, the main Marikana women’s group, Sikhala Sonke, attempted to get the World Bank’s Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) to force the IFC to take responsibility, requesting a formal Dispute Resolution process with Lonmin to give community relief from socio-economic repression. They gave up after the internal Bank process proved useless.[19] Lonmin, facing bankruptcy, was purchased by a local mining house in 2017 but Sikhala Sonke’s grievances against the IFC remain unresolved.[20]

In another unsuccessful case of appealing to the World Bank’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) to compel the IFC to make good on massive damages caused by a South African investment, the well-regarded women-led social advocacy group Black Sash criticized the IFC’s $107 million (22%) share in Cash Paymaster Services (CPS), part of its ‘financial inclusion portfolio.[21]

But predatory lending and corruption compelled the IFC ‘to put measures in place to address and rectify impugned conduct,’ according to Black Sash, whose activists had documented ‘unauthorized and fraudulent deductions from the social grants of beneficiaries to the benefit of’ CPS (and the IFC), ‘unlawful and unethical use of social grant beneficiary data and information, persistent allegations of corruption’ and other dubious business practices.[22]

Failing to get relief from the IFC, Black Sash and local allies not only had CPS’s lucrative financial-inclusion contract with the state welfare department cancelled, but also sued CPS for reparations, and in 2020 the firm’s holding company placed it into bankruptcy to avoid further damage.

This demand for profit repayment is the precedent for forcing the IFC to ‘pay back the money,’ a local activist phrase used regularly since prior president Jacob Zuma’s 2009-18 era of extreme corruption became the source of social fury.[23] Although CPS is bankrupt, the firm’s owner is Net1, and the Bank’s 2021 latest strategy document for South Africa mentions it twice as an operative investment with financial inclusion ‘mostly achieved’ and a blank space under ‘Lessons’ to ‘strengthen financial stability and increase access to finance for the poor.’[24]

These efforts to discipline IFC-owned firms in South Africa occurred prior to the World Bank’s 2019 loss of its immunity from prosecution in the U.S. Supreme Court.[25] That precedent could be useful, insofar as it may scare the bank into settling in other jurisdictions, for fear the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or other laws (including civil tort claims) may hold the IFC accountable in the U.S., where it has never had prior reason to fear prosecution.

In the meantime, a culture of criminality apparently prevails in the South African IFC portfolio. Instead of relying upon the institution’s own fatally-flawed internal review mechanisms, South Africa’s courts may consider taking the advice of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organization’s lawyers. That would entail beginning a long-overdue process of not only cease-and-desist against IFC-owned corporations, but the compulsion of reparations payments from the firms and their ethics-challenged financiers.[26]

The Bank’s largest-ever loan: for a (corrupted) coal-fired power plant 

Aside from the IFC’s anti-social and anti-ecological investments described above, the single most important problem with the World Bank as a model of transnational financing in South Africa is its generosity towards Eskom. From 1951 through the 2010 Medupi loan, it has been extremely controversial.

The Jubilee South Africa movement led by Anglican Archbishops Desmond Tutu and Njongonkulu Ndungane and by poet Dennis Brutus had condemned apartheid loans from the late 1990s, demanding reparations.

Mandela himself also expressed regret about the need to repay of apartheid-era debt instead of meeting society’s basic needs: ‘We inherited a debt of R250 billion [then $73 billion], which we are servicing at a rate of 30 billion [$8.8 billion] a year. That is 30 billion that we did not have to build houses as we planned before we came into government, to make sure our children go to the best schools, that unemployment is properly addressed.’[27]

But it was in 2010 that the most fateful loan by the World Bank was made by then president Robert Zoellick. There was extensive lobbying by civil society and even big business against the Bank making its $3.75 billion loan, most of which would fund Medupi. One core reason was that a supplier of $5.6 billion worth of boilers for Medupi and Kusile, Tokyo-based Hitachi, had engaged in corrupt relationships with the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

This was understood in South Africa by 2009 when the Eskom chair at the time, Valli Moosa, who also served on the ANC’s Finance Committee, was officially condemned by government’s Public Protector – and trade union allies as well – for his ‘improper’ conflict of interest.[28] Eskom’s board approved Medupi in December 2005, four months after Moosa became Eskom chair, the same month that Hitachi Power Africa brought on as its 25% ‘empowerment’ partner the ANC-linked Chancellor House, a major source of the party’s revenues.

As the Public Protector – an independent public interest auditor – found in 2009, ‘There can be no doubt that Mr Moosa, as a member of the National Executive Committee and its Finance Committee owed a duty to the ANC to act in its best financial interests. Likewise, as the Chairperson of the Eskom Board of Directors it was expected of him to act in the best financial interests of Eskom. These two interests were therefore in direct conflict at the time when the awarding of the contract to the Hitachi Consortium was considered by the Board.’[29]

That process began in March 2006 and was concluded in late 2007, followed by a blaze of publicity as journalists uncovered the role of Moosa, especially after the conflict-of-interest finding in early 2009.[30]

Then in 2015, Hitachi was prosecuted under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) by the Securities and Exchange Commission for, in essence, bribery of ANC leaders. The Washington law firm Paul Weiss – often a defender of corporations charged under the FCPA – drew these conclusions:

‘Hitachi’s relationship with Chancellor, an alter ego for the ruling political party in South Africa, should serve as a cautionary tale underscoring the importance of a risk-based approach to due diligence and anti-corruption compliance from the very outset of any interaction with a third party. Any issuer operating in a region with a high corruption risk should take note and ensure that it has a robust set of policies in place to prevent possible exposure to FCPA liability. And finally, the Hitachi case serves as a reminder that in many countries, political parties wield significant power and influence over government decision-making and business. Any company’s assessment of corruption risk, and any effective corporate anti-corruption program, must take account of exposure to political parties and party officials.’[31]

Incredibly, Moosa made a comeback within the South African state in the late 2010s and was, ironically, named leader of the Presidential Climate Commission, with no mention of his role in the corrupt Medupi and Kusile transactions. The U.S. FCPA precedent has also been ignored by the South African state, even after the regime of corrupt president Jacob Zuma ended in February 2018.

And unfortunately, because of Pretoria’s prosecutorial incapacity, instead of paying the $19 million FCPA fine to local taxpayers and electricity consumers in 2015, Hitachi settled out of court (so the U.S. state received the fine). Eskom consumers had to cover the costs of corruption, along with repayments of principal and interest.

The Bank’s lack of political will to take Eskom corruption seriously was again revealed in 2015, when its ‘Vice President-Integrity’ was none other than a South African, Leonard McCarthy. As head of the country’s lead investigating unit (the ‘Scorpions’) just before Zuma took office in 2009, his incriminating ‘Spy Tapes’ phone calls in 2007-08 meant prosecutors plausibly claimed he was biased, and in turn that allowed Zuma to be let off the hook for 783 counts of corruption.[32]

Then in 2015 after Hitachi paid its fine, and without acknowledging his own conflict of interest (having failed to bring Eskom to book during years running the Scorpions), McCarthy flippantly dismissed a complaint against Hitachi by the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Subsequent evidence of an additional $10 billion worth of Eskom corruption, in large part implicating other Bank-financed activities at Medupi, went uninvestigated by McCarthy and his successor, or any other Bank unit.[33]

Even setting aside fossil-related corruption at both Eskom and Transnet, the World Bank’s ongoing commitment to high-carbon energy financing was on display in 2019 when the IFC teamed up with Transnet to promote a new LNG terminal and processing facility, as noted above. Ironically, when it came to advising on Eskom’s decarbonization process, according to energy scholar Mark Swilling, ‘the UK, U.S., French and German governments plus the EU formed the Just Energy Transition Partnership after a lightning visit of climate envoys shortly before the COP26 meeting. The World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds facility has positioned itself as the de facto coordinator.’[34]

Eskom’s Odious Debt should be repudiated

In 2019, Eskom’s two new coal-fired power stations were assessed by Business Day and its editorial is worth citing at length:

Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile power stations could turn out to be the biggest disaster in South Africa’s economic history. The latest revelations that the plants have a litany of design and technological concerns that have seriously affected their operation puts paid to any notion that SA’s power crisis may be only temporary. Eskom chair Jabu Mabuza says the power stations are producing half the electricity they should be. The list of defects – which Eskom itself revealed as part of its plea to the National Energy Regulator SA to consider a higher tariff increase due to its financial stress – is truly astonishing. For instance, the boiler design results in high temperatures that cannot be adequately cooled by the spray water system. The design also causes ash blockages and does not allow for proper dust control, while the computer control system does not meet technical specifications. All of these, and others, result in frequent tripping and require maintenance to be done twice as frequently as would usually be required.

Eskom blames these faults on its main contractor, Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Africa, the same company that has been found responsible for defective welding and for being repeatedly unable to pass a key milestone before commissioning, namely the steam quality test. It is quite telling, though, that Eskom, which has in the past invoked legal procedures and penalties against contractors that have not delivered, is not doing so this time. By all accounts of contractors in the industry, Eskom’s project management has been appalling. It is expected that contractors, who have been unable to get onto site as per the schedule, will have large claims against Eskom, which ultimately will add significantly to the bottom line. That bottom line is constantly moving, as are the completion dates for the projects. Medupi, for instance, was first conceived in 2004, the first sod was turned in 2007, the completion date for the first unit was 2012 and the date to finish all six was 2015. However, what happened was that first power was produced by Medupi in March 2015 and the final completion date is now 2021.

The cost of Medupi has escalated from R69.1bn in 2007 (R116.7bn in 2016 prices) to the latest estimate, in 2016, of R145bn. To this must be added R30bn for flue gas desulphurization, interest costs over the 14 years of construction and contractor claims. The numbers for Kusile are bigger. Eskom’s R434bn (or thereabouts) in debt and its consequent financial crisis are a direct result of these two projects.

More serious than the confidence blow, however, is the prospect that South Africa will be left with with two enormous, expensive and inefficient coal-fired mega power stations that cannot recoup their costs. This will happen just as the entire world is moving away from coal to cheaper forms of energy generated by wind and solar power. Known to economists as stranded assets, it’s what more polite members of public will call a white elephant. The rest of us, though, will be inclined to call it what it is: a cock-up of massive proportions.[35]

Even the government’s own National Planning Commission review was scathing in 2020, especially about cost overruns:

Medupi and Kusile were originally due to come online in 2012 and 2014 respectively. In 2019 both are still under construction. Medupi’s completion date has been pushed out until 2021 and Kusile, is scheduled for 2023. When Eskom announced in 2007 that it was to build the two new mega coal power plants, the cost of Medupi was just under R70 bn and Kusile R80 bn. The current costs are now R208 bn for Medupi and R239 bn for Kusile. While some of the units have come online and are generating electricity, they have been plagued by problems. Eskom calls these ‘design faults’ and intends rectifying them at a cost of R8bn.[36]

Not only should coal-fired power have been avoided, so too should Eskom itself have been weaned off mega-projects and into a more decentralized, democratic system of state-owned renewable energy plus ecologically-sound storage, within a revitalized national grid to accomplish electricity transfers and cross-subsidization.

But the World Bank instead went with a model that is a cock-up in every way imaginable. And it is not that the World Bank had no leverage over its borrower, Eskom; the Bank’s ability to impose different forms of conditionality is regularly remarked upon. For example, the 2018-21 South African Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, complained in February 2021, ‘The conversations with the World Bank were difficult and were bordering on the impositions of conditionalities. As you know, we are very allergic to conditionalities. We could not concede to conditions and we had to push back.’[37]

The Bank did conclude a $750 million loan a few months after Mboweni was replaced, without clarity on conditionalities aside from endorsing the extreme fiscal austerity imposed by Mboweni’s successor. But the financiers’ desire not to intervene against – and instead to profit from – South Africa’s herd of corrupt, climate-catastrophic white-elephant mega-projects is revealing.

For these reasons, protesters and the general citizenry are due a global hearing on whether the World Bank should continue collecting on its Odious Debt.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: [email protected]










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Patrick Bond

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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